Monday, October 16, 2006

Respect our Enemies— Why?

by Tibor R. Machan

Freeman Dyson, who is a famous physicist and Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton University, wrote the following lines in The New York Review of Books that are, in my view, worth reflecting upon:

"Yes, I wrote that we should respect our enemies as human beings in order to understand them. I do not tract or apologize for this statement. I would like only to add a more general statement, that our lack of respect for our enemies made it harder for us to deal with them effectively." [11/02/2006. p. 63]

OK, where to begin? Why should one respect someone as a human being? Does being a human being amount to some worthwhile achievement? No. Why then respect one merely for being human—Hitler was human, Ted Bundy was human, slaveholders were human, child molesters are human and it is pretty preposterous to consider all of them worthy of any sort of respect (although perhaps some did some few things that may be so, say, kept a clean house or treated their pets nicely). So, that part of Professor Dyson's claim is arguably false, unless, at least, it is seriously modified or amended.

Why would lack of respect imply lack of understanding? Much of the world around us deserves no respect at all, yet we can understand it pretty well. As a physicist, does Professor Dyson respect the electron or the quark? Do these inanimate, non-conscious beings go about earning our respect? Just how would that be, since they make no decisions, good or bad, worthwhile or not? Or are we to just respect anything, in which case the concept loses all of its distinctive meaning.

It looks like, then, that we could well come to understand our enemies, too, without respecting them. Of course, if "respect" amounts to nothing more than "giving something its due," including anything at all, regardless of accomplishment or merit, then, yes, by all means let's respect our enemies, as well as everything we need to understand—hurricanes, viruses, the plague, vicious crooks, and so forth. But then, once again, "respect" is being used quite idiosyncratically.

Now if "respect" is really synonymous with "understand," then the last part of Professor Dyson’s point is a tautology, an empty utterance—let's understand our enemies because if we don't, we won't understand them. No big news here.

Actually, often to understand our enemies it is imperative that we have no respect for them. Respecting them could well prejudice our understanding of them. We may be tempted to ascribe to them good qualities they do not have and by such means be tempted to misunderstand them quite seriously.

Now I am not familiar with Professor Dyson's complete philosophy and do not know whether, as a physicist, he believes in ethics, in the idea that some people are more deserving than others because of how they choose to act. It is often the case with natural scientists that they view the world as morally neutral, through and through, to the point that ethics is precluded even from an understanding of human existence. It is all just que sera, sera for them, with no personal responsibility, no freedom of will possible.

In such a case talk of respect is, of course, superfluous—at most it means being awed by the world, by all of it, by what are deemed vicious and virtuous deeds equally. But then, of course, the idea of an enemy goes by the wayside, too. At most some things may have adverse impact on some other things but there can be no enemy since all sides are simply playing out the ways of impersonal nature. Sure, the lion may be the enemy of the zebra and the zebra of the grass, but all such talk is myth, without any possibility of truth to it.

But as I said, I am not sure if that is how Professor Dyson looks at things—I suspect his ideas on such matters are complicated. So let us just stick to what he believed is worth presenting to the readers of The New York Review of Books.

And all in all those ideas, albeit put cryptically, don't amount to much that's useful or true. The implicit doctrine of tolerance that they contain—let's respect everyone, enemy and friend alike—is, I submit, more dangerous than the occasional mindless moralism some of his adversaries may evince. To tolerate the intolerable, as that famous neo-Marxist Herbert Marcuse argued many moons ago with his doctrine of repressive tolerance, is not a virtue but a vice. If nothing else, Professor Dyson might acknowledge this fact as he considers the worthiness of those who disagree with him about these matters.

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